The Hillsborough County School Board will hold an emergency meeting Wednesday to address the surge in COVID-19 cases throughout the district.
The meeting, from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. in the School Board Auditorium, comes as the district reported 564 COVID-19 cases in the first week of school, made up of 336 students and 228 employees.
With weekend numbers now in, as of the start of Monday, the district has seen 661 reported cases, according to an online dashboard, including 549 students and 260 employees.
The number of COVID-19 cases has caused 5,599 students and 316 employees in Hillsborough County Public Schools to be kept in isolation or quarantine, as of Monday morning, according to a news release from the school district. Isolation refers to individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19, while quarantine refers to those who have had close contact with a positive case.
Board Members will meet Wednesday to discuss the impact of the high caseload and address the best ways to mitigate against the spread of the virus, including making face coverings mandatory for all students and staff. The board will allow one hour of public comment.
If the board decides to move forward with a mask mandate, the school district will join Alachua and Broward counties in rejecting Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ ban on requiring face coverings in schools — an act that could cost them.
Currently, the Hillsborough County School District has a mask mandate but provides parents with a choice to opt-out, essentially making for a mask-optional policy; a parallel Superintendent Addison Davis acknowledged in making the rule.
But, Davis went forward with the opt-out policy anyway, without many options.
The week before school started, Surgeon General Scott Rivkees signed a rule requiring schools to let parents or guardians “opt-out the student from wearing a face-covering or mask,” along with rules for COVID-19 symptoms, positives and exposures.
The State Board of Education also cleared an emergency rule prohibiting mask mandates in schools, after an order by DeSantis.
But, Alachua and Broward County school districts are pushing back, imposing mandatory masking requirements, leading the state to threaten withholding funds for noncompliance.
The Florida Department of Education is set to hold a second emergency Board of Education meeting about mask policies in schools at 4 p.m. Tuesday — a meeting that will likely impact how the Hillsborough County School Board proceeds.
The school districts risked cuts to funding, but the penalties didn’t play out quite as DeSantis’ original threat intended. DeSantis’ executive order threatened to cut school district budgets where mask mandates were issued. He walked that back later, saying he would only cut salaries for school board members and superintendents who implemented the requirements.
The lawsuit filed by parents of students with disabilities claims preventing schools from enforcing mask requirements could be deadly for students with disabilities who are at high risk for illness, especially in children under 12 who are not yet eligible for the vaccine.
The back-to-school COVID-19 cases come as Tampa Bay and Florida as a whole experience a surge from the delta variant. Hillsborough County alone has reported 10,920 new COVID-19 cases this week, with an average positivity rate of 23.1%. Pinellas County saw 6,434 cases of COVID-19 this past week and a positivity rate of 19.2%.